The Journal Register (Medina, NY)

December 28, 2012

Agricultural angst

By Jim Krencik
Medina Journal-Register

Medina Journal-Register — As the waters of the Erie Canal drained away, another source of hydration for parched fields of green disappeared, adding to harshly dry and hot conditions for local farms. In a year of almost-biblical plagues it was just one more challenge for those who feed our communities.

“It’s part of farming, anything can happen,” Orleans County Farm Bureau President Gary Kludt said that week.

It felt like everything did happen in a year where days heavy with work and minds filled with hope were needed to ensure a reduced crop did not turn into a calamity. Local farmers came through, not only bringing a great deal of produce to market but also to the charitable endeavors that benefit from their patronage.

The growing season began early, when a stretch of perfect summer weather arrived in mid-March. The early blossoms on apple and other fruit trees didn’t stand much of a chance when the more seasonable but inhospitable conditions returned.

There was a wait-and-see approach taken when the frost returned, but a month later, when Representative Kathy Hochul visited a Charles Pettit’s Medina farm the results were in. He showed off buds that came in too early and would not bear fruit, and those that had survived.

Many farmers reported that their yield was significantly down, with the weather to blame. What did grow came in as much as a month early.

“It’s like July at the end of May,” Dave Coulter said as a disappointing berry crop was harvested.

At the Orleans County Farmers Markets, the message to shoppers picking up berries, cherries and peaches was to buy what you liked now — it may not be here next week.

As the growing season, the real one, arrived, so did an invasion of armyworms. The bugs bite, the worst in two generations, swept through the area with rapid movement. The inch-long larvae had an insatiable appetite for wheat, tall grasses, corn and even lawns.

”It’s uncommon to have some here and there, but (this year) it’s abundant,” Phil Hurlbutt of Kludt Brothers Farm said in June. “You could walk a field one day (and see none) and two days later they could be there. It’s a constant check.”

As the armyworm invasion peaked, a long period of drought conditions began locally and across the nation. Less than 1/5 of an inch of rain fell from mid-June to mid-July, forcing farmers to juggle irrigation systems that were costly to operate but essential for the harvest.

There were successes, a crops like corn, peppers, pumpkins and squash came in strongly.

”It was still a good growing year — if you could keep water on your plants,” Dave Riegle said this week. “This was the hardest year to maintain the water ... we were laying and moving the irrigation piping twice a day, four hours in each place. It was nearly impossible to keep up.”

”We got just enough rain at the right times,” Jody Neal of Poverty Hill Farm said in September, after finding some “pleasant surprises” in his fields and seeing how others didn’t fare so well. “There’s areas were you can tell they’re hurting.”

That was true in the midwest, where the massive dairy industries’ intensive need for feed drove up prices for producers and buyers. Riegle, who opened a bakery and market in Medina at the mid-year, said he saw the price for a case of butter rise $24 in six months.

As the year comes to a close, we are seeing the price increases for what’s left of the apple crop, which eventually came in like many other fruits — early but small.

There’s always a market for what grows locally, and hope for a better year in 2013. Or at least a less stressful one.

Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 798-1400, ext. 6327.